The six-month trial of police armed response teams, introduced in the wake of the Christchurch attacks, ended on Sunday. An evaluation is expected in June, but we don’t need to wait until then to know that routinely arming police isn’t the solution, says Anjum Rahman.
On dark winter nights last year, I went to the mosque regularly for Ramadan, as I do every year. What was different in 2019 were the armed police officers standing outside the mosque. I can’t identify guns, but I knew they weren’t carrying pistols or rifles. These were serious weapons.
I’d see the officers every night in the cold, wet weather. Away from their homes and families. When I could, I would thank them for being there and providing comfort to a community that still hadn’t recovered from the tragedy earlier that year. The officers were there because of a specific event and an unknown threat to a specific community.
There are times when police should be armed, and I would never argue otherwise. The Armed Response Teams (ARTs), however, are another matter.
In November 2019 when police started a trial of armed police roaming Counties Manukau, Waikato and Christchurch, then-police commissioner Mike Bush gave this as an explanation: “Following the events of March 15 in Christchurch, our operating environment has changed.”
That the police used the mosque attacks as a reason to arm themselves left me dismayed. While we in the Muslim community knew that there was still a lot of hostility towards us, I didn’t believe then – nor do I believe now – that armed police are the solution.
That is not to say that the Muslim community as a whole was opposed to the idea. Many Muslims supported the trials, but I wonder if they took into consideration that those in the Māori and Pasifika communities are the ones who face the brunt of aggressive policing. By tying ARTs to the Muslim community, the police helped create a wedge between our community and theirs.
There is bias against Māori in the justice system, as recent research by Just Speak shows. In the last 10 years, 33 of the 48 people shot by police were people of colour. The Mental Health Foundation, in its letter to the minister of police protesting the armed trials, cited the higher use of tasers against people with mental health than against rest of the population. That same discrepancy is likely to occur when police are more routinely armed.
I’m absolutely certain that the majority of the Muslim community would not want to have an attack against them used as a reason for potentially higher levels of violence against other communities.
Already children in some neighbourhoods are fearful at the sight of armed police in their streets. And it turned out that ARTs were not just used for “responding to events where a significant risk is posed to the public or staff” and supporting “the execution of pre-planned and high-risk search warrants, high-profile public events and prevention activities”, as the official guidelines state.
Rather, the police acknowledged that the teams were used for routine policing, including “a lot of traffic stops”. At a time when police are seeking greater restrictions on gun use by the public through the Arms Legislation Bill, it’s hypocritical that they are increasing their own freedom to use them.
Armed police will not make our communities safer, although officers may feel safer in the shorter term. The likelihood is that the community is more likely to arm themselves in response.
But more than that, increased community safety or police safety is not achieved by force of arms. It is achieved by building community relationships. Rather than closing local police stations, rather than removing officers from local communities, we need police to be present and active in neighbourhoods. This requires a much higher level of resourcing and investment.
More importantly, if we want our communities and our police to be safe, we need to be looking after the basics: ensuring children have three meals a day and that their parents have a fair wage and secure employment; access to affordable housing and quality education; the ability to express one’s own individual identity without discrimination or exclusion.
That police feel the need to arm themselves shows that society has failed in providing these things. A crime prevention strategy will not work until government connects all of these factors.
For now, the trials have been put on hold until they have been reviewed. This is good news, but until there is certainty police will not be regularly armed in the future, cause for concern remains.
The Muslim community is still not feeling safe, a year on from the horrific mosque attacks. We need the police, and are in regular contact with them, given the risks coming up this year with the sentencing of the accused, the Royal Commission report into the attacks, and the general election. We are reliant on the police doing their jobs well, in connection with our intelligence agencies. They have been responsive and engaged with community leaders, and we thank them deeply for their work.
Even so, it is our duty to advocate beyond our own community. To show solidarity with those who are adversely affected by ARTs and to speak where we have the opportunity. We do want our police to be safe. But arming them is not the answer.